Evolutionary Epistemology: Everything evolves.

In brief:

Evolution is everywhere. Scientific knowledge evolves through trial and error and our social knowledge which governs our lives is no different. We need radical social entrepreneurs to build the legal and governance structures necessary for our social knowledge to evolve.

What is it?

Epistemology is the study of knowledge: how do we know what we know? How do we learn more? Evolutionary epistemology explains the growth of human knowledge as a process of variation and selection, similar to biological evolution.

At the lowest level, creatures with better knowledge of their environment were selected by evolution over time. Biological life went through ‘variations,’ as creatures attempted different behaviors and evolved different physical forms to survive. Behavior in-tune with the risks and conditions of the outside world is rewarded and ‘winning’ life forms continued to survive.

Our own human senses like sight and smell are adaptations to the environment: they evolved to provide us with knowledge of the outside world. While this means we can trust them to some degree as a useful reflection of the world around us, it also means they are necessarily limited.

Evolution is ongoing, and there is no reason to think that we can (or ever will) perceive all the processes of the universe.

Once our senses and the brains needed to understand them evolved, the growth of our knowledge moved to another level. Instead of the crude life-and-death struggles selecting for evolutionarily useful behaviors and better knowledge, we could now reflect in our minds on the ‘fitness’ of an action or idea.

Just like the outside environment selected for behavior best adapted to the outside world, we can compare new behavior and ideas against structures in our mind like our memory and senses. We can “model” the outside world in our minds, and understand that some ideas and actions make sense with our knowledge of the outside world, and others do not.

This again leads to ‘variation’ – new, creative ideas and behaviors, conceived of in our minds – and ‘selection’, selected by our own internal, reasoning process. Creative ideas put into action, just like entrepreneurship, are also selected by the outside environment.

At a higher level still, thought structures like science also evolve using this same process. Karl Popper, the legendary philosopher of science, described this process as one of ‘conjecture and refutation’. You may notice that this is the same basic form a “variation” and “selection.”

This means simply that humans create a theory and then open it to criticism by testing it against the world – using experiments, for example. Bad theories are refuted by scientific data and the criticism of others. Good theories survive and advance – but still remain open to refutation in the future!

So we have the same process, all the way down. Science moves by variation – a new theory – and selection – putting that theory up against evidence and criticism. Our own rational behavior, like the use of the scientific method, is itself the product of evolution. Chalking up the events of the world to spirits or other mystical phenomena proved less useful to humanity than science for increasing our knowledge. So our internal reason selected for the fitness of scientific ‘trial and error’.

This leaves brings us full circle, back to the lower levels of evolution. Our own brain, our sight and smell are themselves the product of evolution through physical “variation and selection” over millions of years.

Evolutionary epistemology is merely the extension of how we understand the development of all life, but taken to the mental heights that humanity has achieved.

What does Evolutionary Epistemology mean for radical social entrepreneurs?

Knowledge advances through trial and error. Just as our scientific knowledge requires creative, new theories to test against the world, so too does our social knowledge.

Entrepreneurs are somewhat like scientists of sociality. They build new environments and new products that people may or may not like. Each act is as ‘blind’ of a conjecture as a new scientific hypothesis. A successful project is selected, while a failed one is ‘refuted.’

Radical social entrepreneurs are on the frontiers of human knowledge. New projects, especially those in fundamental categories like law and society, are evolving human community forward. Entrepreneurs must be aware of their unique, creative role. At the same time, this means that we want to live in a world of savvy, and ethical entrepreneurs who push the bounds of human knowledge.

Evolutionary epistemology also suggests that there are likely to be massive social gains from opening up a wider scope for entrepreneurship. High barriers to innovation and stagnant, protected monopolies prevent social entrepreneurs from innovating our societies. Our social knowledge, our cultures, our politics and communities all suffer.

We need to build frameworks for social evolution. These might include ‘best practices’ for entrepreneurship in community, and entrepreneurial legal systems to spark innovation and incubate start-ups.

With an enabling framework for entrepreneurial advance, we can radically evolve our knowledge of the world, and of ourselves.


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